The dry, unrelenting heat of the Negev awoke me as I reluctantly arose having arrived in Israel the day before. Twenty hours earlier, the reality of what I was about to do had sunk in. Was I really about to spend an entire month in the Israeli desert, away from the creature comforts and familiarity of my home and family in Boston?

For the last 12 months, I’d been taking Ulpan (Hebrew classes) to prepare myself for a once-in-a-lifetime experience volunteering at Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF) affiliate ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran, a rehabilitation village for children and adults with disabilities in Israel’s Negev Desert.

As a proud Zionist and supporter of JNF, being afforded the opportunity to volunteer at ALEH Negev meant so much to me on so many levels. I was playing a small part in helping to fulfill the dream of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who famously said, “It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested.” And tested I would be.

Rhonda and an ALEH Negev resident (Courtesy photo)
Rhonda, left, and an ALEH Negev resident (Courtesy photo)

Before I left for Israel, my close friends and I were musing over how I would handle the heat of Israel’s Negev Desert combined with my perimenopausal hot flashes. A quick-witted friend remarked, “You’ll have to be naked all the time!” Which is how my blog, Naked in the Negev, came about.

As Shabbat came around, I gazed out the window of my small apartment in Be’er Sheva. The desert sand, emboldened by a southern breeze, encased the city’s modern houses and roads in a fine coating of persimmon colored dust, a blunt reminder that I wasn’t in Newton anymore. Yet as I continued to look out my window, I noticed the stark contrast between the barren desert in the distance and the lush greenery and cool shade provided by the nearby JNF parks and gardens as giggling children frolicked and ladies in activewear walked their dogs. Although the desert warmth radiated through my apartment’s window, it was a bearable heat and thanks to the low humidity, my hair remained frizz-free.

Later in the day, I ventured out to the local supermarket. The mundanity of supermarket shopping was replaced by an unexpected sense of amazement as I perused the cereal, soda and baking aisles, captivated by the Hebrew words on every product, the same letters used to write our holy Torah and an ancient language spoken since the 10th century BCE, now on a box of Cheerios.

I first heard about ALEH Negev on a JNF Mission to Israel. Although I’d visited Israel before, JNF showed me a side of my ancestral homeland that I had never known existed. During the mission, we visited a number of inspiring JNF sites and affiliates in Israel’s Negev Desert, including a facility providing rehabilitative services for people with disabilities.

This village is called ALEH Negev, a project created by a commander from the Israel Defense Forces, Doron Almog, who had a son with disabilities and who couldn’t find an organization providing residential therapeutic services. Together with this wife, Almog dreamed of a place where people with disabilities in the Negev could receive world-class support in a warm and inviting environment. Almog’s dream eventually turned into reality thanks to JNF and support from the government of Israel. After witnessing the magic of ALEH Negev, I promised myself I’d return to volunteer and be a part of the magic. Twelve months of Hebrew lessons later, I was about to fulfill that promise.

As I reported for duty on my first day of volunteering, I was captivated by the understated beauty of the surrounding environment. The “village,” for lack of a better word, included a hospital and outpatient rehabilitation facility incorporating a hydrotherapy pool, horseback riding facilities, an integrated kindergarten and petting zoo, along with individual residences. The staff welcomed me with open arms and I immediately felt a connection to their sense of purpose as I saw how much they gave of themselves to support the village’s mission.

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ALEH Negev (Courtesy photo)

I was assigned to work in a residential house with 24 residents who are considered to be high-functioning adults, though most were non-verbal. My duties included dressing and feeding them in addition to supporting the functions they were able to do on their own. I vividly remember working with three wonderful ladies to package small ceramic doves in boxes. We were tasked with putting stickers on each ceramic piece, opening a box and then placing the dove into the box and closing it. You should have seen the look on the faces of these ladies whose pride and sense of accomplishment reverberated throughout the room.

I was so emotionally moved by their reaction on the completion of each individual box that by the end of the day, my energy had been sapped out of me. The staff told me to relax and slow down because these are the feelings that would consume me for the rest of my time at ALEH Negev, and they were right.

For some of ALEH Negev’s residents, the highlight is when they visit “snooze land.” Painted in bright white and with padded walls and floors, the room features a swinging chaise, beanbags, a single-size waterbed and a cylinder filled with bubbling water illuminated by an array of technicolor lights. As the residents are escorted into the room, the main lights are switched off and replaced with the soothing glow of colored LED lights to promote feelings of tranquility and serenity and provide the residents with the time and space to soothe their minds, bodies and souls. As the residents relaxed, we rolled up our sleeves and gently massaged their arms and backs to deepen their sense of calmness. This room soon became my favorite place, not because of the calmness, but because I got to see the residents in a different state of being.

I cried twice during my time at ALEH Negev. The first time was when I witnessed a mother visiting her daughter, a woman in her early 40s. I recall the mother coming into our workshop and giving her daughter a hug. Their embrace was as beautiful as it was heartbreaking. The resident’s mother exuded so much love, warmth and joy in her embrace, yet her daughter’s condition prevented her from physically expressing the same display of affection. This encounter, however, reinforced my belief that parents of children with disabilities share an extra special bond allowing them to communicate in ways that transcend displays of physical affection.

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ALEH Negev (Courtesy photo)

The next time I cried was on Shabbat. Most of the staff at ALEH Negev are volunteers, with many of them being “b’not sherut,” or young women undertaking their mandatory national service. I found out that ALEH Negev struggles to attract volunteers on Shabbat. However, on this Shabbat afternoon, not only did the young women turn up to volunteer, they brought their friends.

While they weren’t required to be there, these young men and women proceeded to bring all of the residents into the large physical therapy room. Once there, magic happened. One by one, the volunteers called on the residents by name and included them in their Shabbat singing. It’s hard to describe the unbridled exuberance that many of the residents displayed when they heard their names called as part of the impromptu singalong. This is a Shabbat experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life, much like my overall experience at ALEH Negev.

As many of you know, Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAAIM) takes place in February each year. Too often, we forget that our community is blessed with people of varying abilities. It’s important that we see the ability in people’s disability and accommodate them in a way that reinforces them as equals. While the message of inclusion applies to Jews and non-Jews alike, there is a specific Jewish obligation to embrace our peers with special needs and to ensure they can participate to the fullest extent possible in our beautifully rich communal life.

As we are taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirke Avot 2:5), meaning we must not allow anyone to be separated from our community against their will. Whether you are an employer, co-worker, friend, family member or anyone who knows someone with a disability, I urge you to go out of your way to make that person feel loved, valued and connected.

This February, let us rededicate our efforts to making this world more accessible, open and inclusive for our friends, family and community members with disabilities.

If you are interested in learning more about JNF, ALEH Negev or any of JNF’s meaningful affiliates, please be in touch with executive director Sara Hefez at shefez@jnf.org.

Rhonda Forman is president of Jewish National Fund’s Sapphire Society, the women’s major gifts division, and serves on the Boston Board of Directors. Rhonda is originally from Montreal. She and her husband are residents of Newton and have two grown children. She retired as a reading teacher from the Newton Public School system earlier this year.

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